Remains could dig up twisted legacy of Richard III

 

London

Tyrant or hero? Rightful monarch or child-killer? Despotic hunchback or brave scoliosis sufferer? Now is the winter of our debate over one of England's most notorious villains: Richard III.

Underneath a drab parking lot 90 miles northwest of London, archaeologists have unearthed what may become one of this nation's finds of the century — half-a-millennium-old bones thought to be the remains of the long-lost monarch. But if the discovery has touched off a feverish round of DNA tests against his closest living descendants, it has also lurched to the surface a series of burning questions in a country where even arcane points of history are disputed with the gusto of modern-day politics.

What was the true nature of a king famously depicted by William Shakespeare as a twisted soul who locked his young nephews — and rivals to the throne — in the Tower of London, never to be heard from again? Did Shakespeare offer a fair accounting of historical record, or was the Bard the Karl Rove of his day, a spin doctor for the House of Tudor that assumed power after the monarch fell with fateful cries of "Treason!" at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485?

Whether the bones prove to be Richard's or not, the discovery in September has already set academic journals, websites, university lecture circuits and the mainstream media abuzz across Britain, sparking intense and occasionally impolite exchanges. On the floor of the House of Commons, members of Parliament are eloquently clashing, with representatives from York — for whom Richard was the last hope against rival Lancastrians in the War of the Roses — demanding the restoration of his tarnished image. One organization of die-hard Richard III supporters (there are at least two) is running a national ad campaign to clear the king's name.

There are even calls for a state funeral, giving the medieval king a send-off steeped in the pomp and circumstance of contemporary Britain.

"I suppose we won't dash off to the Folger Library in Washington and destroy the First Folio, but we must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford," Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament from York, said with tongue only partly planted in cheek. "The fact that a Mr. Shakespeare decided to write some play about a hunchback shouldn't blacken the name of a fine, upstanding defender of country."

Yet if the remains are indeed those of the long-lost sovereign — something archaeologists call extremely likely — it also raises a conundrum: Where to bury one of England's most demonized characters?

Under Church of England protocol, the bones, should they prove to be Richard's, appear destined to end up in the cathedral at Leicester, the city where the remains were found. But many insist they should instead go to the Anglican cathedral in York, the city where history suggests that he wanted to rest. Still others question whether burial should be in an Anglican cathedral at all, as he died a Roman Catholic, reigning by the grace of God and the pope.

Some of his staunchest backers — who paint him pious, brave and unyieldingly loyal to England — suggest that he deserves nothing less than a spot at Westminster Abbey, an honored resting place of legendary historical figures. But that option seems to have been quickly nipped in the bud by Queen Elizabeth II, who owes her own arrival on the royal stage to a chain of events set off by Richard's death, which changed the course of history.

"We understand the queen has suggested that she doesn't want him there," said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society. Stone, interestingly, sides with critics who are against a state funeral, saying it would simply be "too much" in these troubled financial times. "But it would be nice if we could at least have a procession, with the coffin being carried in a stately carriage."

That bones were found at all is a testament to the tenacity of Richard's supporters. After his death, the king's body was interred at a Leicester monastery and became buried in time and memory. But earlier this year, screenwriter and Richard III aficionado Philippa Langley cobbled together $52,000 to finance what become a single-minded ambition: finding his remains.

After comparing ancient maps and modern city plans, a team of archaeologists at Leicester University pinpointed possible locations of the old monastery and had a stroke of luck when the most likely site for Richard's grave was found to be in a city parking lot. Spurred by the hope of tourism dollars, the city approved the dig, which in September uncovered the remains of a man — exactly where texts said the monarch was buried — who was of the right age and nourishment level and who had suffered battle trauma and spine damage.

DNA tests against a Canadian descendant of Richard's eldest sister should be completed early next year. Yet even if the remains turn out not to be his, Richard III supporters have nevertheless already succeeded in provoking a nation to rethink his legacy.

"So much of what we know about him currency is wrong, and in the past we accepted the Tudor version of history unquestionably," she said. "But not anymore."

Indeed, for historians and Shakespearean scholars the find has also dug up the centuries-old debate over a much-maligned monarch.

Experts say there are few objective depictions of Richard III from his reign. Rather, his legacy was built largely on "Tudor propaganda," including Polydore Vergil's landmark "Anglica Historia" and the works of John Rous, who assured the medieval world that Richard III had been born with teeth and hair after two years in his mother's womb.

What is clear is this: After decades of war between rival houses, Richard III became the last king of England to fall on the battlefield, slain while defending his crown against a marauding upstart backed by France. That upstart, Henry VII, seeded a House of Tudor that over a century would break with the Vatican, humble mighty Spain and usher in a golden age of British arts, enlightenment and power.

Analysis of the bones may also suggest the extent to which Shakespeare and early historians — upon whose accounts the writer drew — took creative license with the king's appearance. He was described in Shakespeare's "Richard III" as a hunchback "so lamely and unfashionable that dogs" barked at him as he went by. But the remains found in Leicester instead suggest a man with a less-dramatic curvature of the spine, likely from scoliosis.

Even Richard III backers tend to acknowledge that he is guilty of locking up the "princes in the Tower" — or his two nephews, 12 and 9, who were declared illegitimate so he could seize the throne after the death of his brother Edward IV. But the scant, unclear evidence of their fate — especially whether he took the step of having them killed — is now facing its deepest scrutiny in the better part of 500 years.

But for his critics, the lost-and-found king cannot escape what history holds to be his most ghastly deed. "England cannot, should not, celebrate a child-killer," said Gareth Russell, British novelist, historical blogger and certainly no friend to Richard III.

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?